Birds and Birdfeeding

Everything you ever wanted to know about birdseed and birdfeeders!


Winter is not the easiest season for humans to deal with. The landscape changes with the addition of snow, temperatures fall, and we are forced, sometimes brutally, to consider the idea the we are not the masters of this planet, but mere tenants.

Winter is also a very beautiful time of year. In the words of one of my favorite authors, John Burroughs, "I saw what a what a severe, yet master artist Old Winter is. How stern the woods look, dark and cold and rigid against the horizon as iron! All life and action upon the snow have an added emphasis and significance."
The cold, frozen world is the perfect stage for the small birds which live their daily lives as though they were actors in a play called "Winter."

This, I think, is why we humans put out food for birds. It is our way of thanking these tiny troubadours for their wonderful performances.
Since I am often asked to give advice on the topic, I thought a general review of bird feeding might be in order.

First off, why don’t we review the different kinds of seeds with which you can tempt your birds. From smallest to largest they are: Niger, white millet, milo, grass and wheat seeds, cracked corn, sunflower chips, safflower, black oil sunflower, gray-striped sunflower, whole corn, and peanuts. In addition to these seeds you can also offer raisins and beef suet for certain birds.

Of the seeds there are two which require special mention. First is Niger seed, which is very popular with the smaller finches and is commonly referred to as thistle seed. In small amounts, this makes a great treat for birds like goldfinches and redpolls, but you may drain your bank account if you try to offer them too much.

Second is milo seed. Avoid milo at all costs. Any time I have ever put out mixed seed containing milo I have found that the milo is ignored by most birds. Turkeys, pheasants, and quail will eat it, which makes it a good birdseed ingredient if you live in the southern or southwestern United States, but here in the northeast milo is a waste.

As for the birds, there are too many species for me to review in detail in this article, but I can give you a quick rundown of a couple different categories of birds. As I do this try to keep a general rule in mind: smaller birds will want smaller seeds and larger birds will usually have a difficult time with anything but the largest seeds.

The First Citizens of the bird community are usually black-capped chickadees. Bossy, brassy, and quite acrobatic, chickadees are wonderful little birds which will retrieve seeds from almost anywhere. Because they are generalists the design of their beaks and feet allow chickadees to deal with a wide range of seeds. They accomplish this by holding seeds in their feet and hammering them open while they perch on a branch. Sunflower seeds are their favorite.

Tufted titmice and blue jays are similar to chickadees in their attitudes, lifestyles, and tastes. Blue jays are often given a bad rap, but they are delightful birds which instantly brighten anyone’s birdfeeder. Because they are so large, however, jays are unable to deal with smaller seeds. All three birds like peanuts too, though only blue jays can handle whole peanuts.

Nuthatches are also quite willing to come to feeders on or near houses, but they will not stray far from the comfort of trees. In addition, they will be quite reluctant to retrieve seeds from the ground no matter how close their trees may be.
Because of the shape of their bodies, nuthatches are unable to use their feet to grasp seeds. Instead, they bring seeds to a favorite nook in the bark of a tree, wedge the seed into place, and hammer them open. As a result, nuthatches need big, soft seeds like sunflower seeds and sunflower chips.

Next are the "Winter Finches." This group includes American goldfinches, common redpolls, snow buntings, northern juncos, northern cardinals, and evening grosbeaks. White throated sparrows can be included in this group as well.

Finches do not feed with the brute force method of chickadees nuthatches. Instead, they have specialized beaks which allow them to crack open almost any kind of seed. As a result, finches tend to settle down in one spot and efficiently de-shell and swallow one seed after another. As a general rule, finches prefer open places near thickets or bushes. Smaller finches like niger, millet, wheat and grass seeds, while the larger may stick to sunflower seeds.

Mourning doves and wild turkeys are also able to deal with almost any kind of seed. They accomplish this by swallowing seeds whole and then grinding them to a pulp inside their gizzards. Mourning doves like millet, and prefer to be in cleared spaces where they may gather in flocks of up to 50 birds.

Finally, we come to the downy and hairy woodpeckers. Both are lovely visitors to any feeding station, but neither will be too interested in seeds. In the absence of human bird feeding efforts, woodpeckers depend on hibernating insects for food. The only commercially available substitute for insects is beef suet, which woodpeckers love.

In addition to these regularly seen birds, you may also have eastern bluebirds, Carolina wrens, and American robins in your yard. Wrens will eat small seeds, suet, and raisins, while bluebirds and robins will eat raisins if they will come to your feeder at all.

Now that we know which birds like which foods the only key bit of information which remains is presentation. The simplest birdfeeder is the ground. Just sprinkle some seeds on the ground, a flat rock, or a wooden plank, and the birds will come. Nuthatches and woodpeckers usually won’t respond to ground feeders, but it is the method which works best for
mourning doves. As soon as it snows, however, you may want to try something different for other birds.

This is why birdfeeders were invented. Birdfeeders are basically containers which hold large amounts of food up off the ground, and out of the elements to some degree. There are hundreds of different feeders which you can purchase, some beautiful and others plain, but most of them fall into three main categories: platform feeders, tube feeders, and suet cages.

Platform feeders are probably the oldest type. Their basic design includes a broad base, a slanted roof, and a hopper which will hold a large amount of seed. The key feature is the roof, which keeps the seed dry and clear of snow. Larger platform feeders are usually mounted on posts, while smaller ones can be suspended on chains.

Platform feeders will appeal to the broadest range of birds because of their design. Almost all birds, from the smallest finches all the way up to the largest feeder visitors, the blue jays, will find platform feeders appealing. The only exception may be mourning doves, which will not be able to find suitable footing on smaller platform feeders.

If you would like to use a platform feeder, I would suggest filling it with a mixed seed that contains at least 40% sunflower seed. Birdseed mixes that are a little lean on sunflower will probably end up in heaps on the ground. This is because blue jays will actually shovel the smaller millet seeds out of the way while they attempt to collect as many sunflower seeds as possible.

This brings us the main weakness of platform feeders. Because their design it attractive to almost everyone, they tend to fall victim to blue jays and squirrels, both of which can set up shop and exclude smaller birds. If this has happened to you, I would suggest that you try a tube feeder.

Tube feeders are relatively new, but they make a great addition to anyone’s yard. Their design keeps seeds dry and clean, and they also allow you have more control over which birds get to eat. As a general rule, tube feeders are better for smaller birds.

This keeps the blue jays at bay, but also keeps cardinals away. Squirrels will also be discouraged, but to save yourself some aggravation try to get tube feeders with metal shields around the openings. Otherwise, persistent squirrels may gnaw huge holes through the plastic, and ruin your feeder.

If you decide to use tube feeders, I would recommend filling them with black oil sunflower seeds, sunflower chips, or a mixture of both. This will appeal to the widest range of birds which may visit a tube feeder. Tube feeders filled with millet tend to stay that way, if you get my drift.

An variant of the tube-feeder design is a thistle sock. Made of fabric and specially designed to dispense small niger seeds, these sock feeders cost about $3, and are good way to see if you have goldfinches in your area. If it turns out that you do, you may want to upgrade to a tube feeder designed for niger seed since the sock feeders tend to fall apart after a while.

Another interesting variety of feeder uses two-way mirrors to allow human observers to get very close to birds. These feeders are designed to either attach to a window, or sit inside and open window.
The latter design resembles an aquarium resting on its side, and comes with a kit which contains weather-stripping and other items which keep cold air from coming in through the window. They tend to be expensive, but are great fun once the birds figure them out. You can sit only inches away from your birds and a really good look at them.

Finally, we come to suet feeders. Beef suet will attract a surprising array of birds, including, chickadees, titmice, blue jays, nuthatches, Carolina wrens, woodpeckers, and starlings. The most simple suet feeder is a metal cage, which is filled with suet and hung out for the birds. Suet feeders can also be quite beautiful, however, and quite clever in their design.

Some are constructed so the suet is hung in a basket which is covered on the top and sides. The resulting feeder prevents any but the most acrobatic birds from getting at the suet. Such feeders are a great way to discourage starlings while still feeding chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.

If you decided that you want to try feeding the birds in your yard you must remember to keep the safety of the birds foremost in your mind. If you have a cat, or your neighbor has one, it may be the case that you cannot feed the birds and protect them too. There are special measures which you can take to counteract cats, however. The best way to do this is to keep your cat inside where it cannot kill anything. This is the simplest way, since there really isn’t any good reason to let a cat outside anyway.

If the cat belongs to a neighbor, however, you can take one other important measure to protect your birds: keep your feeders away from bushes, buildings, or any other feature which might provide shelter and concealment for a cat. Cats usually hunt by ambush and if they have nowhere to hide, they can’t accomplish much.
You can also create safe zones around your feeders by erecting small fences around feeder posts and trees. Such a fence need not be particularly tall, but tall enough to interrupt the stealthy approach of a cat. When faced with such an obstacle, cats usually give up very quickly.

Finally, you must do your best to keep your feeders clean. This is especially important in the spring when the water from melting snow may saturate seeds which are on the ground, or in platform feeders. If mold starts to grow, or bacteria from fecal material start to proliferate, your birds may fall victim to diseases and infections which can kill them.

In the spring, you should also rake up piles of seeds and shells which have fallen out of feeders during the winter, and reposition your feeding stations son that any freshly spilled seeds land on a fresh piece of ground.

The perfect feeder combination is as follows: one niger seed feeder, one tube feeder with sunflower seeds, one platform feeder with mixed seed, a suet feeder, a nice open patch of ground where you can spread mixed seed out for mourning doves, and an in-the-window feeder filled with mixed seed next to a comfy chair. As long as the birds are safe, you should be able to enjoy watching them throughout the year.

Black-capped Chickadee
Blue Jay
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Tufted Titmouse
American Goldfinch

Winter Wren (left) and female Downy Woodpecker (right).